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Buffalo School Board takes contract offer directly to teachers

After years of failed attempts to negotiate a new contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, the School Board is now taking its latest offer directly to teachers.

The move underscores a lack of faith that negotiations are headed toward any kind of resolution, and suggests the district could be close to pulling the plug on talks with an outside mediator. That would put the district in uncharted waters, and some have already suggested the issue will likely wind up in court.

In a letter emailed to teachers Thursday, the board attempts to make the case for contractual changes it is seeking. The most significant include:

• Increasing the school day from six hours and 50 minutes to seven hours and 30 minutes.

• Increasing the number of work days from 186 to 189 each year.

• Requiring teachers to pay 12 percent of their health insurance premium, as opposed to paying nothing now.

• Allowing principals to transfer and assign teachers based on educational needs, not seniority.

• A 10 percent salary increase for teachers, plus an additional 1 percent each of the next three years.

“Without the changes the District has proposed, a system of failure will simply be perpetuated, and the consequences of continuous failure could be devastating,” the board’s letter states.

The decision to take its offer directly to teachers is the latest turn in a lengthy and contentious negotiation process to revamp a contract that expired more than a decade ago. Attorney Terry O’Neil, who is negotiating for the district, said board members do not believe union leaders are accurately relaying their offers to teachers and wanted to present the information themselves.

“We went to the teachers and said ‘Here are the options, just so you know,’ ” he said.

The letter is signed “Members of the Board of Education” and a district spokeswoman directed a request for comment to members of the board.

The hope is that teachers will like the offer and pressure their union leaders to resolve the issue.

But the strategy of circumventing the bargaining team during ongoing negotiations may not have the desired effect.

“I’d like to see this settled; I’m sure there’s enough blame to go around on both sides, but I’m not sure this is the strategy that is going to work,” said teacher Keith Hughes, who works with several schools implementing technology. “Most teachers are either pretty in tune with the union, or aren’t going to step out and say anything against it.”

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said his office had been fielding calls all day from teachers angry about the board’s letter.

“The letter outraged the teachers,” Rumore said. “It was like rubbing salt into an open wound.”

Tensions over the contract talks have been mounting as union and district leaders continue to negotiate with no end in sight. And Buffalo teachers, working under the terms of what could be the longest expired school contract in state history, are close to exhausting all of their options for mediation laid out in state labor law.

Added to the frustration over negotiations is the state’s new receivership law, which allows Superintendent Kriner Cash to make changes that circumvent the contract at some schools.

Hundreds of teachers gathered outside City Hall prior to Wednesday’s School Board meeting to protest both the expired contract and receivership. Rumore has said he will file a lawsuit against the receivership law.

Despite the letter, O’Neil said the district is still willing to negotiate with union leaders. The two parties have one more session scheduled with the outside mediator next week.

But with the union already battling some of the proposed changes, and the board taking its offer directly to teachers, it seems unlikely that meeting will be more productive than any of the others.

Some have already suggested the case could end up in court and test the Taylor Law, the state statute that sets rules for municipalities when bargaining with civil service and teacher unions. Many argue that the law and its accompanying Triborough Amendment – which allows for expired contract terms to remain in effect until a new deal is reached – have long given these unions a clear edge in negotiations.

“This is a perfect illustration of how the combination of the Taylor Law and the Triborough Amendment can create problems,” O’Neil said. “We’ll have to assess where we’re headed and whether we’re headed for litigation.”